If there was ever a Tigers’ football game to be submitted for viewing on ESPN Classic, its matchup with Shelton might receive the nomination.
Hand traveled to the Gaels and scratched out a 44-41 victory on Oct. 25 thanks to a 29-yard Tyler Phan field goal with 24 seconds to play in a crazy game that even saw a power failure on lights at each end of the field late in the first half in addition to seven total lead changes and six ties.
“It meant a lot to get that field goal; it’s been a long year for the seniors and the team,” said Phan. “The whole night I wasn’t doing so great, but my coaches believed in me, so I just went out there at the end and did it.”
Nick Van Dell finished 19-for-31 with 220 yards, 3 touchdowns, while Conor Dowd added 127 rushing yards on 20 attempts, as The Tigers are now 6-1 and have now won six in a row since their opening night loss and are consistently showing why they are the two-time defending Class L state champions and that the rest of the state should be on notice despite having contests this season in which Hand’s three phases of the game aren’t firing on all cylinders simultaneously.
“Overall, offensively we were stellar; we ran the ball well. Nick, Conor, and all of our receivers had unbelievable nights,” said Head Coach Steve Filippone. “Our defense and the kicking game let us down for the first time this year. They exploited us in the running game. Last week versus Fairfield Prep, our defense and kicking game won us the matchup, so it’s like we are flipping around week in and week out with which part of our team is going to be good to win us the game. We are still making mistakes, but winning; it’s nothing short of miraculous I told them.”
Hand began the scoring shootout with Van Dell throwing to Tom Wilson (4 receptions, 89 yards) on a 64-yard touchdown toss before Shelton (5-2) responded with two straight rushing scores to end the first quarter up by seven, 14-7.
In the second, Dowd evened things with his end zone rush from 20 yards out, yet the Gaels stormed right back with a 35-yard touchdown strike. Van Dell continued the rapid offensive pace by taking it in for a 24-yard rushing trip to pay dirt to tie things at 21.
Shelton regained the lead on an 82-yard kickoff return right before the Tigers and Gaels experienced a scene similar to Super Bowl XLVII earlier this year with the power failure. Yet Van Dell (14 rushes, 60 yards) charged Hand right back up with a 1-yard scoring scamper to give both squads 28 points at halftime after a seven-play, 65-yard drive.
“After the power failure, Josh DeMartino ripped the ball out of a Shelton defender’s hands to take away what I thought was an interception on third down in that drive,” said Filippone. “That was a huge emotional boost for us, because we played maybe our worst half of football this year, but are tied at 28 with them.”
Van Dell hooked up with DeMartino (3 catches, 69 yards) on a 16-yard touchdown heave to put the Tigers up by a possession, although just like the opening period, the next two scores went to the Gaels on rushes to end the third and begin the fourth with Shelton missing the extra point on the latter touchdown.
Down 41-35, Hand (469 all-purpose yards) drove the ball downfield 56 yards in 15 snaps before a 4th-and-goal at the Gaels’ 3-yard line, as Van Dell backpedaled 10 yards on the play prior to finding Jake Mirando (8 receptions, 43 yards) to even the score at 41 after Phan missed an extra point attempt.
“On that play, we put in an extra back to give us a dual option,” said Filippone. “Nick had three guys coming to him, yet he made one miss and outran the other two. We always practice scramble drills in which when the quarterback scrambles, everyone has a spot to go to.”
Shelton then went three-and-out to give the Tigers the ball to begin the game-winning drive, which started with a 36-yard rushing blast from Dowd. Van Dell couldn’t connect on 3rd-and-8 from the Gaels’ 11, so Phan came out and gave the Tigers’ the game-clinching boot prior to Shelton being picked off by Kyle Freiman in its final chance at Hand’s 24-yard line with a second left.
“After the field goal, I thought we left them too much time,” said Filippone. “We also had a 5-yard penalty, but we got the interception at the end. The kids fought valiantly, though.”
Defensively, Pat Rogers and Ian Dieli each had a sack, while Scott Sweitzer led with 16 tackles, followed by Tommy Wilson (13), Taylor Houghton (11), and Freiman (10) amongst Hand’s 86 tackles in what has been a shuffled defensive deck.
“We have been weakened by injuries on defense, so it forces us to move people around, and again, they exploited us in the running game,” said Filippone. “It weakens out defense as a unit; it’s not an excuse for us, but a legitimate concern. We are walking a tight rope with these injuries.”
The Tigers next host 5-2 Xavier on Friday, Nov. 1 at the Surf Club at 7 p.m. For the Class L playoff rankings, the Tigers are now fourth with a 125.71 point average. The top eight teams qualify for the playoffs.
“Xavier is a little more balanced in their approach,” Filippone said. “They have good wide receivers and will mix it up.”
Added Phan: “They are obviously a great team and it’s always a rivalry game, and this year it’s at our place, so hopefully we can stay undefeated at the new [Strong Center] Surf Club field.”